Karen Saba's assignment for Mercy Corps is daunting in both its aim and its breadth.
She's charged with empowering people with disabilities throughout the Middle East, where generally paternalistic and fatalistic attitudes toward persons with disabilities can stymie equal access to education, public facilities and employment.
"Just getting people to talk about disability is the most important thing we're trying to do," Saba says. She hopes to fuel a dialogue that will eventually transform how people with disabilities view themselves, and how communities view the role of the disabled in the region's development.
Although she talks modestly about her own role in this transformation, Saba's background and style suggest that she's a powerful agent of change in this volatile region of 190 million people.
She is an Egyptian native whose deep disdain for inequality is rooted in her own experience with cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular disorder that slurs her speech and slows her gait. But her affable personality, oft-displayed wit and strong belief in incremental change help her stay grounded in the sometimes frustrating fight for inclusion.
Saba knows very well what she's up against. When she was 11, her family moved to Maryland so she could receive better medical care and have a chance to go to college, land a good job and become self-sufficient — none of which her parents thought was possible for a disabled girl in Egypt.
In 1994, Saba graduated from the University of Maryland with degrees in linguistics and history and delved into the field of disability rights in the Washington, D.C. area. She spent three years as a housing specialist at an independent-living nonprofit, then traveled to Egypt to help a disability organization on behalf of USAID.
There, during a six-month stint, she discovered that life hadn't improved for her fellow Egyptians with disabilities, and she was shocked at medical providers who took advantage of the ignorance and desperation of parents of disabled children. It reminded her of why her family left, as well as providing an impetus for her eventual return.
"It's when I began to see the whole scope of the problem," says Saba, her playful demeanor turning serious. "I don't like inequality."
After returning to the U.S., she worked as a recruitment specialist for the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults and Youth with Disabilities, and as a consultant for the World Bank's disability initiative. At the same time, she took classes toward a master's degree in international development at American University, which she earned in May 2004.
A year ago, she met one of Mercy Corps' top officials for Middle East programs at a conference in Washington. Last September, she accepted an offer to become the agency's program manager for persons with disabilities, based in the Middle East.
"Throughout the region, there is a lack of programs for people with disabilities and a lack of technical knowledge on how to make things accessible and inclusive," Saba explains. "You can't talk about rights without first giving people solutions for how to do things better."
Mercy Corps is an important role model, she says. Much of her job focuses on integrating the needs of disabled people into the agency's own community development projects and setting an example for governments, nonprofits and businesses on how to include people with disabilities in every aspect of Middle Eastern life.
That includes making sure wheelchair-friendly design is incorporated into new Mercy Corps-funded buildings. Unlike the U.S., Middle Eastern countries don't mandate wheelchair accessibility in new structures, and local design professionals lack technical expertise on what's known as universal building design, which calls for features like ramps, wide doorways and switch heights that accommodate most everyone.
How does one begin to spread that know-how? "We train the engineers on universal design," says Saba, and hope that the schools, community centers and other public buildings that they erect set an example. "I send our engineers links to various websites, give them information and resources — it's a matter of putting it in their ear all the time."
In other communities throughout the Middle East, including Jordan and the West Bank, Saba and her colleagues gather energetic and respected young people with disabilities to discuss what it means to them to be disabled — something they've been conditioned not to think about. "They suppress it," Saba says. "So when I bring them together to talk about it, they end up forming a bond with each other."
"I don't try to point to things and say, 'This is discrimination,'" she continues. "Instead, by giving them the tools to understand their situation, and creating bonds among them, you can create a sense of empowerment and, hopefully, a movement."
Building a strong disability-rights movement is, of course, the ultimate prize — a proven mechanism for people with disabilities to win access to everything from public transportation to equal educational opportunities to job-training programs.
Although it's something Saba would certainly like to see fostered, she's more focused on sparking an ongoing dialogue among people with disabilities, their governments, the private sector and their communities. Such openness eventually will empower people with disabilities and enable them to contribute fully to Middle Eastern societies.
During a recent community meeting about disability awareness in Iraq, for example, a local religious leader stood up and admonished husbands who would reject their wives if they became disabled. To Saba, that impromptu sermon illustrates the success of her grassroots approach.
"I believe in small steps," she says. "In the end, that is a more sustainable way."